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11th Cir.: District Court Correctly Refused to Enforce Arbitration Agreement Obtained From Putative Class Members With Motion for Conditional Cert Pending
Employers seem to getting increasingly aggressive with class waivers, arbitration agreements in the wake of recent high court rulings which are seemingly boundless. In the wake of these recent decisions, some employers—who previously did not include waivers or arbitration agreements in their employment agreements—are seeking to play catch up. Troublingly, we seem to be seeing more and more situations where employers, facing the prospect of class/collective actions based on their often willful violations of wage and hour laws are attempting to force arbitration agreements on their employees in an effort to blunt efforts by their employees to recover their rightful wages. However, most courts faced with such situations have invalidated these improperly obtained arbitration clauses, recognizing that employers are in a position to exert undue pressure on employees fearful for their jobs, and that such arbitration “agreements” are frequently anything but an agreement between two parties consenting to arbitration of their own will.
In a recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit was called upon to review one such decision by a district court (first discussed here) that held such a forced arbitration clause to be invalid, and affirmed the district court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to enforce arbitration under the agreements at issue.
Laying out the salient facts of the case, the court explained:
To support its order denying Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration, the district court made the following findings of fact:
Citi Trends devised and implemented a new alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) policy in the late spring and early summer of 2012—after it was served with the complaint in this action on February 27, 2012, and after the district court set a scheduling conference for May 31, 2012. Weeks after the district court’s May 31, 2012 scheduling order, Citi Trends began to roll out its new ADR policy. The ADR policy included a mandatory agreement to arbitrate all disputes individually rather than collectively.
By June 30, 2012, Citi Trends sent its human resource representatives to meet with store managers to roll out the new ADR policy—but only to putative collective action members (i.e., store managers). Throughout the summer, Citi Trends’s human resource representatives met individually with all store managers across the country. Citi Trends had two employees in each ADR meeting: a human resources representative and a “witness.”
The human resources representative who met with the store managers advised Citi Trends in its employment decisions. Thus, the store managers reasonably believed the human resources representative had authority to make or influence employment decisions, including hiring and firing decisions.
Store managers were ordered to attend the ADR meetings by their supervisors. Citi Trends did not inform the store managers of the true purpose of the mandatory meetings. Instead of telling the store managers that the meetings concerned the company’s new ADR policy, Citi Trends told the store managers that the mandatory meetings concerned the issuance of a new employee handbook.
Typically, Citi Trends rolled out its new employee handbook in a group setting. The handbook was generally provided in printed form (i.e., not as a photocopy), and the employees were required to sign for the handbook. Here, however, Citi Trends did not follow any of its general procedures for rolling out the employee handbook. Instead, Citi Trends (1) held two-on-one private meetings with each store manager in a small, back room in Citi Trends retail stores—the same places where the store interrogated or investigated its employees, (2) discussed only the ADR policy and the fill-in-the-blank declarations related to the store managers’ job duties, (3) provided photocopied versions of the employee handbooks as the store managers left the meetings, and (4) did not require the store managers to sign for the photocopied employee handbook.FN6 The district court found that this rushed and atypical rollout of the employee handbook demonstrated that Citi Trends’s handbook rollout was “pretext for presenting the [arbitration] Agreement to the [store managers] to derail their participation in this lawsuit.”
When a store manager arrived at the back-room meetings, a human resources representative greeted the store manager. A second individual was also at each meeting; however, this person was not introduced to, or known by, the store managers.
At the meetings, Citi Trends’s human resources representative gave the store managers these documents: the arbitration agreement, a fill-in-the-blank declaration, and the store manager disclosure. The store managers were asked to sign each of these documents at the meeting.
Citi Trends informed the store managers that the arbitration agreement was a condition of continued employment. The store managers understood that they would be fired if they did not assent to the arbitration agreement or the new ADR policy. Thus, the store managers lacked meaningful choice in whether to sign the arbitration agreements or other documents. The district court found the setting of the back-room meetings to be a “highly coercive” and “interrogation-like.”
Opt-in plaintiffs testified that they signed the documents but felt intimidated by the human resources representative. They also felt pressured to sign the arbitration agreements to avoid losing their jobs. Even when specifically requested, Citi Trends did not give the store managers copies of the documents that the store managers signed.
The district court found that Citi Trends did not conceive or begin to institute its ADR policy until after the district court held a scheduling conference to determine when and how Billingsley must move for conditional certification. Citi Trends then rolled out its ADR policy in a “blitzkrieg fashion” and only required potential members of this collective action to agree to the ADR policy. The district court found that Citi Trend’s “ADR roll-out was a hurried reaction specifically targeted at curtailing this litigation.”
The district court found that the “purpose and effect” of the arbitration agreement was “to protect Citi Trends in this lawsuit.” The district court also found that the timing of the arbitration agreement’s rollout “was calculated to reduce or eliminate the number of collective action opt-in Plaintiffs in this case” and the rollout was “replete with deceit” and “designed to be[ ] intimidating and coercive.”
After a discussion of the FLSA, its remedial purpose and the broad discretion afforded to courts in managing collective actions, the Eleventh Circuit held that that the district court properly exercised its broad discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration, because such a denial was in line with the court’s responsibilities to manage communications between the parties and putative class members. Specifically, the court reasoned:
Given the “broad authority” that the district court has to manage parties and counsel in an FLSA collective action, the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that Citi Trends’s conduct in the summer of 2012 undermined the court’s authority to manage the collective action. Nor did the district abuse its discretion in determining that—to correct the effect of Citi Trends’s misconduct—it would allow putative collective action members to join the lawsuit notwithstanding their coerced signing of the arbitration agreements.
Whatever right Citi Trends may have had to ask its employees to agree to arbitrate, the district court found that its effort in the summer of 2012 was confusing, misleading, coercive, and clearly designed to thwart unfairly the right of its store managers to make an informed choice as to whether to participate in this FLSA collective action. Since the arbitration agreements by their terms will directly affect this lawsuit, the district court had authority to prevent abuse and to enter appropriate orders governing the conduct of counsel and the parties. See Hoffmann–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 171, 110 S.Ct. at 486–87; see also Kleiner, 751 F.2d at 1203 (class action).
The district court simply did what other district courts routinely do: exercise discretion to correct the effects of pre-certification communications with potential FLSA collective action members after misleading, coercive, or improper communications are made. See, e.g., Balasanyan v. Nordstrom, Inc., No. 11–CV2609–JM–WMC, 2012 WL 760566, at * 1–2, 4 (S.D.Cal. Mar.8, 2012) (refusing to enforce individual arbitration agreement in an FLSA action because the defendant’s imposition of the agreement was an improper class communication); Williams v. Securitas Sec. Servs. USA, Inc., No. 10–7181, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75502, at *8–12 (E.D.Pa. July 13, 2011) (invalidating arbitration agreement imposed on the defendant’s employees during pre-certification stage of FLSA litigation and ordering corrective measures because the arbitration agreement was a “confusing and unfair communication” with the potential opt-in plaintiffs); Ojeda–Sanchez v. Bland Farms, 600 F.Supp.2d 1373, 1379–81 (S.D.Ga.2009) (granting a limited protective order in FLSA collective action where the defendants engaged in unsupervised, unsolicited, in-person interviews of the plaintiffs in an environment that encouraged speedy and uninformed decision-making); Longcrier v. HL–A Co., 595 F.Supp.2d 1218, 1229–30 (S.D.Ala.2008) (striking declarations obtained through the defendants’ abusive and misleading communications with prospective opt-in plaintiffs); Jones v. Casey’s Gen. Stores, 517 F.Supp.2d 1080, 1086, 1089 (S.D.Iowa 2007) (limiting the plaintiffs’ counsel from affirmatively soliciting potential opt-in plaintiffs to join the FLSA action and requiring counsel to modify their website to provide “only a factual, accurate, and balanced outline of the proceedings”); Maddox v. Knowledge Learning Corp., 499 F.Supp.2d 1338, 1342–44 (N.D.Ga.2007) (observing that district courts in § 216(b) actions rely on broad case management discretion by limiting misleading, pre-certification communications and exercising that discretion in the case before the court by ordering the plaintiffs to correct false, unbalanced, and misleading statements on their website); Belt v. Emcare, Inc., 299 F.Supp.2d 664, 667–70 (E.D.Tex.2003) (sanctioning the employer and enjoining the employer from communicating ex parte with potential class action members because the employer intentionally attempted to subvert the district court’s role in the FLSA collective action by unilaterally sending a misleading and coercive letter to potential plaintiffs that encouraged those persons not to join).
District courts’ corrective actions have included refusal to enforce arbitration agreements instituted through improper means and where the timing of the execution of those agreements was similar to the post-filing, pre-certification timing in this case. See, e.g., Balasanyan, 2012 WL 760566, at * 1–2; Williams, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75502, at *8–12; see also In re Currency Conversion Fee Antitrust Litig., 361 F.Supp.2d at 252–54 (imposing similar corrective action in Rule 23 class action).
The district court did not abuse its discretion in correcting the effects of Citi Trends’s improper behavior in this case. The district court held an initial hearing, after which it denied Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration. The court then reconsidered its order, held an additional two-day evidentiary hearing, made specific and detailed findings of fact that were supported by the record, and took minimal action to correct the effects of Citi Trends’s conduct.
The district court limited its order temporally and substantively. The district court limited its order to those agreements signed under the coercive conditions used by Citi Trends in the summer of 2012. And, the district court limited its order to this particular FLSA action. The court specifically said that it was not ruling on the enforceability of the arbitration agreements as they relate to other cases or controversies. The district did not restrict Citi Trends from entering into new arbitration agreements with the store managers; nor did the court prevent store managers from electing to comply with the terms of the arbitration agreements that they signed in the summer of 2012.
The district court’s limited remedial action is not an abuse of its considerable discretion to manage this collective action. Accord Kleiner, 751 F.2d at 1203 (holding that a district court’s power to manage a class action included the power to prohibit a defendant from making “unsupervised, unilateral communications with the plaintiff class”). That is especially true given the opt-in nature of FLSA collective actions. Because FLSA plaintiffs must opt-in, unsupervised, unilateral communications with those potential plaintiffs can sabotage the goal of the FLSA’s informed consent requirement by planting the slightest seed of doubt or worry through the one-sided, unrebutted presentation of “facts.” Because the damage from misstatements could well be irreparable, the district court must be able to exercise its discretion to attempt to correct the effects of such actions. See Hoffmann–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 170, 110 S.Ct. at 486 (noting that court intervention in the collective action notice process may be necessary).
Because we affirm the district court’s decision to deny enforceability of the arbitration agreements in this case, we necessarily must affirm the district court’s order denying Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration.
Click Billingsley v. Citi Trends, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.
Anyone who has ever moved for or opposed a motion for conditional certification (i.e. a “Stage 1” motion) of a collective action is likely familiar with the common defense tactic whereby a defendant asserts that the named plaintiff and members of the putative class are not similarly situated. Typically a defendant argues that individualized issues pertaining to the claims of the named plaintiff(s) (and members within the putative class) render the case ill-suited for class/collective treatment. As discussed below, three recent decisions discuss three separate issues related to this analysis. In the first, a court held that a pro se plaintiff could not adequately serve the interests of the putative class and denied conditional certification. However, in the second and third cases discussed below, the courts rejected the defendants’ contentions that: (1) an undocumented (“illegal”) immigrant was ill-suited to serve as a representative plaintiff; and (2) issues regarding whether specific putative class members signed binding arbitration agreements relating to the issues raised by the named-plaintiff were not properly raised at stage 1.
Pro Se Plaintiff Inadequate Representative for Collective Action
Koch v. CHS Inc.
In the first case, the pro se plaintiff (apparently fairly savvy) moved for conditional certification. Denying the motion, the court held that a pro se plaintiff cannot pursue their claims in a collective action for lack of adequacy of representation. Specifically, the court explained:
The issue of whether a pro se plaintiff can sue on behalf of other members in a collective action is one of adequacy of representation. Determining adequate representation is typically based on a two-part inquiry: “First, the named representatives must appear able to prosecute the action vigorously through qualified counsel, and second, the representatives must not have antagonistic or conflicting interests with the unnamed members of the class.” Lerwill v. Inflight Motion Pictures, Inc., 582 F.2d 507, 512 (9th Cir.1978). Courts have generally concluded that a pro se plaintiff cannot pursue claims on behalf of others in a representative capacity. See Simon v. Hartford Life, Inc., 546 F.3d 661, 664 (9th Cir.2008); see also Johns v. County of San Diego, 114 F.3d 874, 876 (9th Cir.1997) (“While a non-attorney may appear pro se on his ow n behalf, he has no authority to appear as an attorney for others than himself.”); C.E. Pope Equity Trust v. United States, 818 F.2d 696, 697 (9th Cir.1987) (holding that a pro se litigant may not appear as an attorney for others). Here, because Koch is a pro se litigant, he cannot pursue claims on behalf of other CHS employees in a representative capacity.
The rule holds true for pro se plaintiffs seeking to bring collective action suits under the F LSA. Morgovsky v. AdBrite, Inc. ., No. C10–05143–SBA, 2012 WL 1595105 *4 (N.D.Cal. May 4, 2012) (denying pro se plaintiff’s motion to bring a collective action under the FLSA and dismissing collective action claims); Spivey v. Sprint/United Mgt. Co., No. 04–2285–JWL, 2004 WL 3048840 (D.Kan. Dec.30, 2004) (holding that a claim under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) cannot be brought by a pro se plaintiff).
Accordingly, the Court agrees with CHS that Koch, because he proceeds in the litigation pro se, cannot represent the class members on whose behalf he purports to bring suit. Therefore, proceeding with the litigation as a collective action is not permitted pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The motion will be denied.
Click Koch v. CHS Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Decision and Order.
Named-Plaintiff’s Immigration Status Has No Bearing on Similarly Situated Analysis
Torres v. Cache Cache, Ltd.
In the second case of interest, arising from alleged tip pool violations at defendant’s restaurant, the defendant opposed conditional certification, in part, based on the fact that the named-plaintiff was allegedly an undocumented immigrant. The court rejected this notion, citing well-established authority that an FLSA plaintiff’s immigration status is irrelevant to a claim inasmuch thereunder, inasmuch as same seeks payment for work already performed. Discussing this issue the court reasoned:
Finally, in an apparent attempt to distinguish Plaintiff from other proposed collective action members, Defendants note his status as an illegal immigrant and involvement in other similar FLSA lawsuits. Neither of these issues, however, is likely to provide Defendants with a valid defense that is unique to Plaintiff. First, there are a number of cases finding that evidence of immigration status has no relevance in an FLSA action. See e.g. Reyes v. Snowcap Creamery, Inc., 2012 WL 4888476 at *2 (D.Colo. Oct.15, 2012) (recognizing that “weight of authority clearly holds that a plaintiff’s immigration status is irrelevant in an FLSA action” and citing supporting authority). It is also questionable whether Defendants will be able to introduce evidence of other lawsuits involving Plaintiff. See Van Deelen v. Johnson, 2008 WL 4683022 at *2 (D.Kan. Oct.22, 2008) (evidence of plaintiff’s prior lawsuits cannot be admitted for purpose of proving that plaintiff is litigious but may be admissible for other purposes).
Click Torres v. Cache Cache, Ltd. to read the entire Order.
Whether Putative Class Members’ Claims Are Subject to Arbitration is an Issue Reserved for Stage 2
Hernandez v. Immortal Rise, Inc.
In the final decision, the court had before it the Report and Recommendation of the magistrate judge recommending conditional certification. As it had in its opposition to the underlying motion, the defendant argued that members of the putative class who had previously signed agreements to arbitrate their FLSA claims, were not similarly situated to the plaintiff and the remainder of the putative class. As such, the defendant argued such putative class members should be excluded from receiving notice of their right to join the case by opting in. Rejecting this contention, the court held that the issue of whether (and who) may have signed arbitration agreements, is an issue reserved for Stage 2 (decertification) analysis, and is not properly addressed at the conditional certification stage:
Next, defendants argue that the proposed class should be limited to cashiers and those who had not signed arbitration agreements, excluding grocery packers and delivery workers, whom defendants never employed, and employees subject to arbitration agreements. However, these are issues of fact that should be determined during discovery rather than at this preliminary stage. See D’Antuono v. C & G of Groton, Inc., No. 11–cv–33, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135402, at *12–13 (D.Conn. Nov. 23, 2011) (holding that the enforceability of arbitration agreements should not be determined during conditional class certification); Lujan v. Cabana Mgmt., No. 10–cv–755, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9542, at *23–24, 2011 WL 317984 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 1, 2011) (quoting Realite v. Ark Rests. Corp., 7 F.Supp.2d 303, 307 (S.D.N.Y.1998)) (holding that defendants’ contention that its restaurants constituted separate entities raised a contested issue of fact, and was therefore not a basis for denying conditional class certification). Thus, Judge Bloom correctly found that the proposed class should not be limited as defendants propose.
Click Hernandez v. Immortal Rise, Inc. to read the entire Order.
E.D.Mo.: Where Common Tip Pool Violations Alleged, Employees of Franchise Stores as Well as Those at Company-Owned Stores Similarly Situated at Stage 1
White v. 14051 Manchester, Inc.
This case was before the court on the plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification. As discussed here, the plaintiffs sought to facilitate class notice to employees who worked at the franchise locations of the franchisee who employed them, as well as those who worked for “Hotshots” franchisor or company-owned locations. In support of their motion, plaintiffs argued that all tipped employees at all Hotshots locations, regardless of the owner, were required to participate in illegal tip pools whereby they were required to tip out back-of-the-house employees not eligible to participate in a valid tip pool. Rejecting the defendants’ argument that the court should limit the putative class to those tipped employees employed by the franchisee who employed plaintiffs the court explained, that it would be inappropriate to resolve the merits issue regarding which entities employed each putative class member at Stage 1.
Discussing this issue the court opined:
The Supreme Court has noted that whether a relationship is covered by the FLSA turns on the economic realities of the working relationship rather than technical definitions relating to employment. Goldberg v. Whitaker House Coop., Inc., 366 U.S. 28, 33, 81 S.Ct. 933, 6 L.Ed.2d 100 (1961). The FLSA defines “employee” broadly to include “any individual employed by an employer.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1)(2006). In turn, “employ” is defined as “to suffer or permit to work” 29 U.S.C. § 203(g), and an “employer” is any person “acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(d). “Thus, based on the language of the statute, an employee is any individual who is permitted to work by one acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer.” Helmert v. Butterball, LLC, No. 4:08CV00342, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28964, at *6 (E.D.Ark. Mar. 5, 2010); see also Nicholson v. UTi Worldwide, Inc., No. 3:09–cv–722, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41886, at *3 (S.D.Ill. Apr. 18, 2011)(conditionally certifying class of “forklift operators employed” by defendant that included workers hired through temporary staffing agencies).
The Court finds that, for purposes of this Motion, Defendants “permitted or suffered to work” all Hotshots employees, even those at the franchise locations. Given the FLSA’s broad definition of the “employee” and its remedial purpose, Defendants’ franchise arrangement demonstrates sufficient “control” for conditional class certification. Moreover, the employment relationship for franchise employees is disputed by the Plaintiffs, and the Court cannot make credibility determinations at this juncture. See Arnold v. DirecTv, Inc., No. 4:10–CV–352–JAR, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140777, at *8 (E.D.Mo. Sept. 28, 2012)(“The Court will not make any credibility determinations or findings of fact with respect to contradictory evidence presented by the parties at this initial stage.”).
The Court also finds that the proper class definition is all Hotshots employees who shared in any tip pool. Employees who participated in the tip pool were allegedly victims of the same policy or plan and denied compensation as a result of the tip-pooling arrangement. While the Court acknowledges that distinctions exist among the Hotshot’s teams and locations, Plaintiffs’ affidavits provide enough evidence at this stage to demonstrate employees were similarly situated and subject to a common practice. McCauley, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91375, at *12–13 (citing Busler v. Enersys Energy Products, Inc., No. 09–00159, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84500, at *9–10, 2009 WL 2998970 at *3 (W.D.Mo. Sep. 16, 2009)); see also Fast v. Applebee’s Intern., Inc., 243 F.R.D. 360, 363–64 (W.D.Mo.2007) (citations omitted) (“To be similarly situated, however, class members need not be identically situated. The ‘similarly situated’ threshold requires only a modest factual showing.”); Schleipfer v. Mitek Corp., No. 1:06CV109, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64042, at *9 (E.D.Mo. Aug. 29, 2007)(class members need not be identically situated). “[A]rguments concerning the individualized inquiries required and the merits of Plaintiffs’ claims are inappropriate at this stage of the proceeding and can be raised before the Court at the second, or decertification, stage.” Dominquez v. Minn. Beef Indus., No. 06–1002, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61298, at *10 (D.Minn. Aug. 21, 2007)(internal quotation omitted).
Click White v. 14051 Manchester, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum and Order.
Stransky v. HealthONE of Denver, Inc.
This case was before the court on the plaintiffs’ Motion to Toll the Statute of Limitations, which was filed simultaneously with the plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification of the case as a collective action. In granting the plaintiffs motion (in part) and tolling the statute of limitations as of the date on which the plaintiffs sought conditional certification, the court looked to the both the procedural realities of the opt-in provisions of 216(b) and the remedial purpose behind the FLSA. Significantly, the court noted that there would be no prejudice to the defendant in granting such tolling while the potential plaintiffs would be significantly prejudiced by the continued expiration of their respective statutes of limitations if the tolling were not granted.
After discussing cases from around the country that have granted equitable tolling under similar circumstances, largely based upon the amount of time that it took for the court to rule upon a plaintiff’s pending motion for conditional certification, because same is in the interests of justice, the court honed in on the policy supporting such decisions:
In the case of a collective FLSA action, a least one district court in the Tenth Circuit has explained that the unique circumstances of a collective action “is not only significant but justifies tolling the limitations period [ ] for the FLSA putative class until the court authorizes the provision of notice to putative class members or issues an order denying the provision of notice.” In re Bank of America Wage and Hour Emp’t Litig., No. 10–MDL–2138, 2010 WL 4180530 (D.Kan. Oct.20, 2010). In making that equitable tolling determination, the court in In re Bank of America utilized a flexible standard, where a court considers five factors in determining whether to equitably toll a statute of limitations: (1) lack of notice of the filing requirement; (2) lack of constructive knowledge of the filing requirement; (3) diligence in pursuing one’s rights; (4) absence of prejudice to the defendant; and (5) the plaintiff’s reasonableness in remaining ignorant of the particular legal requirement. Id. (citing Graham–Humphreys, 209 F.3d at 561).
Plaintiffs argue that the statue of limitations should be equitably tolled here in the interest of justice in order to protect the Opt-in Plaintiffs’ diminishing claims. The Court agrees. Although early notice to Opt-in Plaintiffs in a collective action such as this is favored, such notice was not possible here as Defendant is in sole possession of the names and last known physical addresses of all potential Opt-in Plaintiffs. As such, allowing Opt-in Plaintiffs’ claims to diminish or expire due to circumstances beyond their direct control would be particularly unjust. The Tenth Circuit has also recognized the possible need for equitable tolling under such conditions. See Gray v. Phillips Petroleum Co., 858 F.2d 610, 616 (10th Cir.1988) (tolling statute of limitations where plaintiffs were lulled into inaction and defendant did not show that any “significant prejudice” would result from allowing plaintiffs to proceed; defendant was “fully apprised” of the plaintiffs’ claims). Moreover, Defendant will not be prejudiced by such equitable tolling. See Baden–Winterwood, 484 F.Supp.2d at 828–29 (defendant not prejudiced because it “had full knowledge that the named Plaintiff brought the suit as a collective action on the date of the filing” and “was fully aware of its scope of potential liability.”). Indeed, Defendant fails to claim it would be prejudiced in any manner, let alone prejudiced unduly, were this Court to toll the applicable limitations period. Thus, having considered the particular facts of this case, the Court finds that the interests of justice are best served by tolling the statute of limitations for the Opt-in Plaintiffs in this case.
However, while the court granted the plaintiffs motion, it declined to toll the statute of limitations back to the date of the filing of the original complaint. Instead, the court held the appropriate date to begin tolling was the date on which the plaintiffs filed their motion for conditional certification.
Click Stransky v. HealthONE of Denver, Inc. to read the entire Corrected Order Granting in Part Plaintiffs’ Motion to Toll the Statute of Limitations.
S.D.N.Y.: Delay Caused By the Time Required for Court to Rule on Motion for Conditional Certification Is ‘Extraordinary Circumstance’ Justifying Equitable Tolling
McGlone v. Contract Callers, Inc.
This case was before the court on plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification of a collective action, seeking to permit court approved notice. The court noted that another court, presented with a similar motion for conditional certification had previously denied same due to very significant differences in the factual circumstances in the employees’ work, depending on location. Nonetheless the court granted plaintiff’s motion and conditionally certified the case with respect to the district in which the plaintiff was employed. As discussed here, the court also granted plaintiff’s motion to equitably toll the statute of limitations for putative class members, as of the date the plaintiff filed his motion for conditional certification. In so doing, the court joined other courts who have held that court delay in issuing a decision on a motion for conditional certification is of itself an “extraordinary circumstance” warranting the tolling of the statute of limitations.
Addressing the equitable tolling issue, the court said:
Normally in a FLSA collective action, the statute of limitations for each plaintiff runs when he or she files written consent with the court electing to join the lawsuit, not when the named plaintiff files the complaint. See 29 U.S.C. § 256(b). However, courts have discretion to equitably toll the limitations period in appropriate cases in order “to avoid inequitable circumstances.” Yahraes v. Restaurant Assocs. Events Corp., 2011 WL 844963, at *1 (E.D.N.Y. Mar.8, 2011). The Honorable Steven M. Gold stated that “the delay caused by the time required for a court to rule on a motion, such as one for certification of a collective action in a FLSA case, may be deemed an ‘extraordinary circumstance’ justifying application of the equitable tolling doctrine.” Id. at *2 (collecting cases). While plaintiffs wishing to pursue their rights cannot sit on them indefinitely, those whose putative class representatives and their counsel are diligently and timely pursuing the claims should also not be penalized due to the courts’ heavy dockets and understandable delays in rulings. Accordingly, the statute of limitations will be tolled as of the date of the filing of this motion.
While courts remain split on this issue, this is a good example of a court ruling on equitable tolling with the remedial purposes of the FLSA in mind.
Click McGlone v. Contract Callers, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.
E.D.N.Y.: Notice Language Advising Undocumented Immigrants That Their Immigration Status is Irrelevant Approved
Enriquez v. Cherry Hill Market Corp.
This case was before the court on the plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification. As discussed here, it is of interest, because of the language the court approved with regard to the Notice to be sent to the class. Specifically, among other things, the court ruled that a warning to potential opt-ins that they may have to participate in the case was unduly chilling and further held that it was appropriate to notify putative class members that their immigration status is irrelevant to their right to recover under the FLSA.
Discussing the latter issue, the court explained:
“The proposed notice informs potential plaintiffs, ‘You have a right to participate in this action even if you are an undocumented alien or if you were paid in cash.’ Not. of Motion, Ex. 3. The plaintiffs states that this information is necessary to reassure potential plaintiffs, many of whom will be ‘foreign-born workers who have little command of English [and] are probably unfamiliar with the American legal system.’ Reply Mem. of Law at 7. The defendants respond that it implies that there employment practices violated immigration and/or labor laws.”
Although the court toned down the language the plaintiff had proposed, ultimately it approved language clarifying that the putative class members’ immigration status was/is irrelevant:
“The Court agrees that the language appropriately corrects a possible assumption that the FLSA does not cover illegal immigrants or workers paid in cash. Its size and placement, however, are unnecessarily inflammatory. Plaintiffs are ordered to remove the language and, instead, add to the end of paragraph beginning “You may be owed payment …” that potential plaintiffs may be owed payment even if they were paid in cash and regardless of their immigration status, or words to that effect.”
Click Enriquez v. Cherry Hill Market Corp. to read the entire Memorandum and Order.
E.D.Pa.: Dukes Does Not Affect Court’s Analysis On 216(b) Conditional Cert Motion; Defendant’s Motion to Reconsider Denied
Spellman v. American Eagle Exp., Inc.
In one of the first decisions, post-Dukes, to clarify what affect the Supreme Court’s recent decision will have on conditional certification of FLSA cases, the answer appears to be not much.
In Dukes, the Supreme Court held that the trial court had inappropriately certified a class of over a million women employed by Wal-mart, based on claims of gender bias. The Supreme Court reasoned that the plaintiffs had not met their burden to demonstrate the requisite commonality required by FRCP 23. In the wake of Dukes, there was much speculation as to whether courts would extend the reasoning in Dukes to cases seeking conditional certification of collective actions under 216(b) of the FLSA. In one of the first decisions rendered on this issue, the answer appears to be a resounding no.
This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion seeking reconsideration of the court’s prior order conditionally certifying a class of drivers employed by defendant. Plaintiffs alleged that defendant, a trucking company, improperly misclassified all of its drivers as independent contractors, when they were really employees. Holding that plaintiffs had met their lenient burden of proof as so-called stage one, the court conditionally certified a nationwide class of drivers, all of whom had been classified as independent contractors. Following the Duke’s decision, the defendant sought reconsideration of the order conditionally certifying the class. Denying the motion, the court explained that the differences between FRCP 23, the class action provision under which Dukes was decided and 216(b), the opt-in provision for FLSA collective actions render Dukes inapplicable in the context of an FLSA collective action. As such, the court denied defendant’s motion.
The court reasoned:
“The instant case is a collective action brought pursuant to the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Unlike Rule 23 class actions. the FLSA requires collective action members to affirmatively opt in to the case. See § 216(b). To determine whether the proposed group of plaintiffs is “similarly situated,” and therefore qualified to proceed as a conditional collective action, a district court applies a two-step test. See Smith v. Sovereign Bancorp, Inc., No. 03–2420, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21010 (E.D.Pa. Nov. 13, 2003). In the first step, which is assessed early in the litigation process, the plaintiff at most must make only a “modest factual showing” that the similarly situated requirement is satisfied. See Bosley v. Chubb Corp., No. 04–4598, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10974, at *7–9 (E.D.Pa. Jun. 3, 2005). The Plaintiffs have made this modest factual showing, and this Court’s analysis is not affected by Dukes. The second step of the collective action certification process will be conducted at the close of class-related discovery, at which time this Court will conduct “a specific factual analysis of each employee’s claim to ensure that each proposed plaintiff is an appropriate party.” Harris v. Healthcare Servs. Grp., Inc., No. 06–2903, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55221, at *2 (E.D.Pa. Jul. 31, 2007). At this second stage, AEX may argue that Dukes‘s analysis of what constitutes a “common question” is persuasive to this Court’s analysis of whether an FLSA collective action should be certified. In the interim, AEX’s motion for reconsideration is denied.”
Click Spellman v. American Eagle Exp., Inc. to read the entire Order.
E.D.Pa.: Defendant’s Attempt to Obtain Class Waivers From Absent Class Members While Motion for Conditional Certification Pending Impermissible; Corrective Measures Ordered
Williams v. Securitas Sec. Services USA, Inc.
Before the court was the emergency motion of plaintiffs for a protective order and corrective mailing to address defendant’s improper communications with absent class members. While plaintiffs motion for conditional certification was pending before the court (but before it had been resolved), the defendant sought to obtain class waivers of the claims in the case from its current employees, by sending each an alternative dispute resolution agreement. The court held that such attempts by the defendant amounted to an obstruction of the court’s role in managing the collective action, granted plaintiffs motion and ordered related corrective action by defendant.
The motion alleged that defendant distributed to all its employees, including its Pennsylvania employees, a document entitled “Securitas Security Services USA, Inc. Dispute Resolution Agreement” (hereinafter “the Agreement”). The body of the Agreement consists of ten paragraphs on four type-written, single-spaced pages and is written in a small font. A fifth page provides a place for the employee to acknowledge receipt of the document. In relevant part:
“The Agreement purports to require all Securitas employees to submit “any dispute arising out of or related to Employee’s employment with [Securitas] … or termination of employment” to a binding arbitration conducted pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. § 1, et seq. It states in small boldface letters that “this Agreement requires all such disputes to be resolved only by an arbitrator through final and binding arbitration and not by way of court or jury trial.” The Agreement specifies that any dispute arising from federal “wage-hour law” and the FLSA must be arbitrated. The Agreement states, again in small bold font, “there will be no right or authority for any dispute to be brought, heard or arbitrated as a class, collective or representative action (“Class Action Waiver”).”
Paragraph 7 of the Agreement says that although the Agreement is meant to apply “broadly,” if an employee is “a named party plaintiff, or ha[s] joined as a party plaintiff this Agreement shall not apply to those Actions, and you may continue to participate in them without regard to this Agreement,” but “shall apply to all Actions in which you are not a plaintiff or part of a certified class.” The Agreement then lists five representative or class action lawsuits in which Securitas is a named defendant, including this lawsuit, “Frankie Williams and Kimberly Ord, filed 12/10/2010, USDC, Eastern District of Pennsylvania Case No. 2:10–CV–07181–HB.” The term “Actions” is defined as “litigation on behalf of [Securitas] employees in which those employees desire to represent claims of other employees in class, collective or other representative actions.” Thus, the term “Actions” does not appear to be limited only to the five lawsuits enumerated later in paragraph 7. The nature of the Williams action is not explained.
The Agreement further states that if the employee would like to participate in one of the “Actions,” he or she “may opt out of this Agreement by following the procedure set forth in Section 9, below.” To opt out of the Agreement, the employee must call a toll-free telephone number within 30 days of the date the employee received the Agreement. According to the Agreement, “Should an Employee not opt out of this Agreement within 30 days of the Employee’s receipt of this Agreement, continuing the Employee’s employment constitutes mutual acceptance of the terms of this Agreement by the Employee and [Securitas].” The Agreement declares that not opting out means an employee forfeits the right to participate in any collective or representative action. Securitas adds that it will not retaliate against any employee for opting out of the Agreement or for asserting claims according to its terms.
The fifth page of the Agreement states as follows:
ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF RECEIPT OF THE SECURITAS SECURITY SERVICES USA, INC. DISPUTE RESOLUTION AGREEMENT
BY SIGNING BELOW, I AM ACKNOWLEDGING RECEIPT OF THE SECURITAS SECURITY SERVICES USA, INC. DISPUTE RESOLUTION AGREEMENT, EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY.
Below this text is a place for the employee to sign and date the Agreement. There is also a place for a witness to sign his or her name.”
The court rejected defendant’s attempts to stretch the holding of the Supreme Court’s recent holding in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, stating:
“Under Hoffman–La Roche, this court has a responsibility to prevent confusion and unfairness concerning this action in which plaintiffs seek to have the matter proceed as a collective action and to insure that all parties act fairly while the court decides whether and how this action will move forward under the FLSA. In the meantime, to prevent confusion and unfairness, we will order Securitas to rescind the Agreement with respect to its Pennsylvania employees as it relates to this litigation. We will require Securitas to set forth the nature of this action and advise its Pennsylvania employees that the Agreement is not binding with regard to those employees’ right to participate in this lawsuit, notwithstanding the fact that the employee may have signed the Agreement or failed timely to opt out.
Securitas contends that any interference by this court with its efforts to compel arbitration of disputes with its employees will be contrary to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, –––U.S. ––––, 131 S.Ct. 1740, 179 L.Ed.2d 742 (2011). We disagree. In Concepcion, the Supreme Court held that, generally, states may not adopt rules of contract interpretation that undermine the “overarching purpose” of the FAA, which “is to ensure the enforcement of arbitration agreements according to their terms so as to facilitate streamlined proceedings.” Id. at 1748. There, the Court considered California contract law, which deemed unconscionable certain contracts that disallowed class arbitration. The Court found the law impermissibly stood “as an obstacle to the accomplishment of the FAA’s objectives.”
Securitas’ reliance on Concepcion is inapposite because plaintiffs’ motion for a protective order does not rely on any state-law ground to invalidate the Agreement. Here the issue is quite different. This court has found the Agreement to be a confusing and unfair communication with the class of possible plaintiffs in this action under the FLSA.
Securitas argues that invalidating the Agreement merely because this class action lawsuits is pending is equivalent to preventing it from adopting any arbitration policy at all. Whatever right Securitas may have to ask its employees to agree to arbitrate, its current effort, which specifically references this lawsuit, is confusing and misleading and clearly designed to thwart unfairly the right of its employees to make an informed choice as to whether to participate in this collective action under the FLSA. Since the Agreement by its terms will directly affect this lawsuit, this court has authority to prevent abuse and to enter appropriate orders governing the conduct of counsel and the parties. Hoffman–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 171–72. Securitas did not act fairly when it gave notice through the Agreement to potential class members concerning this lawsuit.
Defendant’s proposal to resolve the plaintiffs’ pending motion for conditional class certification before resolving issues related to the Agreement is insufficient to prevent potential plaintiffs from misapprehending their rights. The confusing nature of the Agreement may cause Securitas employees to misunderstand the nature of their rights to participate in this litigation while the court determines whether to conditionally certify a class, damage not easily undone. Similarly, Securitas’s proposal to allow its Pennsylvania employees a second 30–day opt out period if the court conditionally certifies a class is also insufficient because it is for the court, not Securitas, to determine the amount of time employees shall have to consider their right to join this action. Immediate action by this court is necessary.
Securitas shall be required to implement the corrective measures described in the accompanying order.”
In the accompanying Order, the court required that the defendant submit a proposed corrective notice to the plaintiffs within 48 hours which, among other things, stated the the dispute resolution agreement was not binding on with regard to participation in the case (i.e. they would not be precluded from joining this class if they signed the agreement at issue).
S.D.Ind.: Court Erred In Resolving MCA Exemption Issues on Motion for Conditional Certification; On Reconsideration Motion Granted
Thompson v. K.R. Drenth Trucking, Inc.
This case was before the court on plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration of the court’s order denying their motion for conditional certification of a collective action. The case arose out of allegations that defendants violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) by failing to pay a certain group of truck drivers (“plaintiffs”) overtime premiums. Initially, the court denied Plaintiffs’ Motion. In doing so, “the Court held that the Motor Carrier Act exemption applied to [the] named Plaintiffs… thus rendering them ineligible for overtime pay and unsuitable collective action representatives.” In their motion for reconsideration, the plaintiffs asserted that the court had previously erred by inappropriately resolving the merits of the Motor Carrier Act exemption, with respect to the named-plaintiffs at the conditional certification stage. The court agreed, and upon reconsideration granted conditional certification.
The court explained:
“In the February 11, 2011 Entry (Dkt.68), this Court acknowledged that the issue of whether Thompson and Hayden engaged in interstate commerce was “hotly contested.” Plaintiffs emphasized that both Thompson and Hayden were Non–Recyclable Drivers who regularly transported non-recyclable materials within the State of Indiana. Plaintiffs argued that since they never engaged in interstate commerce as part of their “regular” or “normal” duties, Thompson and Hayden are suitable collective action representatives. KRD counters that any of its drivers, including Thompson and Hayden, “could be called upon at any time to carry any load, whether intrastate or interstate,” meaning the MCA exemption applies. (Dkt. 71 at 4). And, indeed, Thompson and Hayden each crossed Indiana state lines on one occasion to transport KRD equipment to South Carolina.
In its prior entry, the Court found KRD’s argument persuasive, determining that the MCA exemption applied to Thompson and Hayden. In other words, even if Thompson and Hayden rarely crossed state lines (or, for that matter, hauled recyclable material destined for out-of-state purchasers), they could have been called upon to do so in their regular course of work. For this reason, the Court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification.
Having now reviewed a more thorough body of case law, the Court finds that it erred by, in effect, making a merits determination at this early stage. As Plaintiffs emphasize, they have a “lenient” burden at this stage of the proceedings and, as such, courts do not reach the merits of Plaintiffs’ FLSA claims. Fravel v. County of Lake, 2008 WL 2704744, at *2 (N.D.Ind. July 7, 2008) (citations omitted). However, it is worth noting that even at this early stage, a court must also ensure that the proposed class representatives are adequate.”
Luckily for the plaintiffs here, the court recognized its initial error and corrected it almost immediately. The court’s decision serves as a reminder that courts simply do not resolve the merits of an FLSA case at the conditional certification stage.
Click Thompson v. K.R. Drenth Trucking, Inc. to read the court’s Entry on Plaintiffs’ Motion to Reconsider.
E.D.Va.: Notwithstanding Prior Conditional Certification Of Almost Identical Class, Class Conditionally Certified
Pollard v. GPM Investments, LLC
This case was before the court on the plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification. The defendant opposed the motion on several grounds. As discussed here, the court rejected the defendant’s arguments that conditional certification was inappropriate because: (1) the case and proposed class were largely duplicative of another case that had previously been certified, and (2) the plaintiffs had waited too long to move for conditional certification.
Rejecting the defendant’s argument that the case was not appropriate for certification, due to another almost identical case, that had previously been certified, the court stated:
“A class action filed in the District of Connecticut makes nearly identical allegations against Defendant as the instant case. Store managers who worked for Defendant between March 14, 2005, and October 22, 2008 received notice of the Connecticut litigation and were invited to join the class action. Plaintiffs argue that the Court should order that notice of the present litigation be issued to all store managers employed by Defendant since February 22, 2007, including those who received notice of the Connecticut litigation. Plaintiffs assert that the store managers who were given notice of the Connecticut litigation and those who joined that litigation should be given the opportunity to join the instant litigation to ensure that they are properly compensated for the overtime hours they may have worked since the Connecticut litigation’s notice period. Plaintiffs further assert that choosing not to join one § 216(b) action should not preclude a person from joining another action.
Defendant, on the other hand, argues that the Court should limit notice to (1) deli managers and (2) store managers who were not noticed in Connecticut case. Defendant states that this is fair because one of the goals of § 216(b) is to avoid “a multiplicity of duplicative suits….” Hoffmann, 493 U.S. at 172. Defendant also asserts that it is not asking the Court to limit or prohibit a second FLSA class action that has the same pool of plaintiffs. Instead, Defendant asks the Court to put the burden on Plaintiffs to show that the rights of the potential class members who received notice but did not join the Connecticut litigation will be prejudiced if they are not given a second opportunity to opt-in. Defendant argues that Plaintiffs cannot satisfy this burden because there is no evidence that the store managers who received notice of the Connecticut case and declined to join would be prejudiced if they did not receive a second notice. Defendant also asserts that the forty-eight store managers who are already plaintiffs in the Connecticut case should not be re-noticed because they chose to join the Connecticut litigation and that decision should not be disturbed.
Defendant has imposed upon Plaintiffs a burden where none exists. Furthermore, Defendant acknowledges that there is no authority that limits the right of potential plaintiffs to receive notice of § 216(b) lawsuits. As such, the Court will not impose this burden on Plaintiffs. To the extent Defendant believes potential class members should not be permitted, Defendant may raise those arguments at the second stage of the process.”
Rejecting the defendant’s argument regarding the timeliness of plaintiff’s motion, the court stated:
“Defendant argues that Plaintiffs unreasonably delayed in bringing the instant Motion in an attempt to obtain a four or five month delay in the trial of this matter. Defendants note that Plaintiffs waited nearly six months after filing the Complaint to request Court-supervised notice pursuant to § 216(b) of the FLSA. Because Plaintiffs’ requested notice period would expire after the November 22, 2010 trial date in this matter, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs’ request is untimely and should be denied. Plaintiffs assert that Defendant has made no argument that it has been prejudiced by Plaintiffs’ delay in bringing the Motion and that continuing the trial date should not present an issue because “[t]he judicial system benefits by efficient resolution in one proceeding of common issues of law and fact arising from the same alleged discriminatory activity.” Hoffman, 493 U.S. at 170.
Because Defendant has not shown that it has suffered prejudice due to the timing of Plaintiffs’ Motion, the Court finds that the Motion is not untimely.”